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Speaking Up About The UK’s Accent Bias Could Be The Last Step For British Social Mobility

News Editor Daisy Eastlake looks into the British accent divide and what it means for social mobility within the UK.

Like many university students, I spent my summer holiday working full-time in a trendy, upmarket London restaurant, saving for my return to third-year studies. The restaurant I worked in was popular for its antique décor, innovative cocktails, and bohemian vibe, so it typically attracted anyone from Amex-bearing businessmen to Instagram influencers. I was seating a couple visiting for their Thursday date night when I was scolded for how I had pronounced ‘back in a minute’: “You know, it isn’t very ladylike to drop your T’s”. 

In the moment, I didn’t really know how to react. I was caught totally off guard; why did the way I pronounced my service matter at all? Would the flavour of the water change? This was a complete and total stranger who saw no reason why commenting on something like my accent might be rude or uncalled for. As far as they were concerned, I was providing them with a service, and I should be doing so by their standards.

Before moving to the city, I had never once thought of my accent as anything less than normal. I’d always imagined myself as having a classic young southern English accent – what I now know to be called ‘Estuary English’, after some very angry post-confrontation googling. The name refers to the generalised sound of in and around London, most significantly Kent, Essex, and the Thames Valley, where I’m from. It’s the midpoint of a spectrum between the Royals and Micky Flanagan.

I still drag out my A’s, adding that famous verbal ‘R’ sound into ‘bath’ and ‘last’ like a classing English southerner. Grammar also tends to stay the same, unlike some other regional accents which may drop words or swap ‘was’ and ‘were’. Mostly, it’s that syllables are shortened or muddied. I’ll cut the defined ‘G’ sound from the end of -ing words, replace a clear ‘TH’ sound with F’s and V’s in words like thinking and together, and most offensively it seems, drop the hard ‘T’ sound from words like water and minute.

Everyone I had grown up around spoke just like me – in fact, I’d been well-spoken by comparison. Throughout my childhood, my dad worked in every job from truck-driving to factories to building sites, so the bones of how I learned to speak started out there. As I became a teenager, the accent only got thicker as I spent most of my time around other people my age, and used more and more slang in my daily life. At home, my accent is very normal, and even across most of the south of England, I’d expect to be asked “who are you?” in the same accent if I stopped someone my age in the street.

But it’s not those people who are spending £300 on a fancy meal out in south-west London. And they’re not sitting on hiring panels for top jobs, either. ‘Accent prestige’ in the UK refers to the domination of Received Pronunciation, more commonly known as the Queen’s or BBC English. It’s found in most positions of authority in Britain, including but not limited to the civil service, the corporate sector, and the media. It’s seen as the accent of the intelligent, the wealthy, and the prosperous – leaving everyone else somewhere in the fallout zone.

Most Brits begin to see how their accent may impact their life when they move away from home for the first time. For many young people, this jump outside of their hometown is made after their A-levels, when they move to university to live with a handful of strangers. In their 2022 study, the Sutton Trust found accent prestige to be an entrenched barrier for students, with 35% of university students reporting being self-conscious of their accent, and 41% of Northern students worrying that their accent may impact their success in the future. 

It’s also worth noting that accent-based discrimination has been the subject of many employment discrimination cases in recent years. McCalam v Royal Mail in March 2023 saw a Scottish postman take his employer to court for discrimination, after colleagues at work had repeatedly joked that they “couldn’t understand him”. A year earlier in 2022, a southern Irish warehouse employee took his company to court after his boss mockingly imitated his accent. Whilst the cases accepted the comments were offensive in relation to the claimant’s race, this does not set a precedent for regional accent variation within a nationality, such as England, where someone from Liverpool may face discrimination interviewing for a job in London. Accents as a protected characteristic is still far from on the cards. 

“I would describe my accent as Northern, definitely from Yorkshire, probably Leeds as well”. Luke is a third-year Spanish and Portuguese student, currently studying abroad in Spain. “At University, I feel like sometimes I could be perceived as being less intelligent than others… It definitely can affect how people perceive my class, it already does”, he continues. Luke has been mistaken by international students to also be from abroad, as the UK’s conventional accent is always portrayed globally as the Received Pronunciation, ‘BBC English’ stereotype. Uninformed about the UK’s diverse linguistic landscape, tourists and international students have called Luke’s accent “funny” and “weird”. “Sometimes I have felt the need to play down my accent… when I’m in London, I try my best to keep my accent as much as I can, because it’s not something I want to lose”. 

For Aleena, comments and jokes about her accent hold a political weight, especially studying in London. “I would describe [my accent] as a fairly generic Northern Irish accent”, she describes. Aleena was born in Kerala, south India, but moved to Bangor, Northern Ireland when she was 1 year old. “I feel that as an ethnic minority, I’ve experienced more issues about my accent than my ethnicity… People are a lot more comfortable about making fun of my accent than my race”.

Accent-related comments and jokes have been commonplace for Aleena since moving over to England for university; even from complete strangers whilst she’s out with her friends. “There was an incident in a Wetherspoons when an older man turned around from his table to talk to me after hearing my accent. As soon as he found out I was studying law, his immediate reaction was, ‘oh, you’d never be taken seriously in a court of law with that accent.’” The troubles and the identity conflict that affected Northern Ireland and the wider United Kingdom are still recent history for the communities who lived through it, so comments about her accent always hold an extra weight. “I’m usually quite excited when people ask about my accent, because I love being from the North… but I remember I was so upset hearing that. It really opened my eyes to how people genuinely do discriminate based on accents”. 

Accent bias also intersects with racial profiling, especially for minority-ethnic home students attending universities with large international student bodies. “I’ve been told that my English is very good, even though I’m from Wales”, says third-year law student Lily. Lily was born in Guangxi province in southern China but was adopted and grew up in South Wales. Her parents are English but moved to Abergavveny before raising Lily and her siblings. Growing up, she stood out from her classmates, both because she’s Chinese and because she had a very pronounced southern English accent. “I never know how to present myself to new people. Before I speak, people might assume that English isn’t my first language. But when I greet them, they are shocked and complement my ability”. 

I will neither be the first nor last person to criticise the accent divide that still affects Brits with regional accents in their day-to-day lives. My mum would joke about the friends she made after moving south “beating” the West Midlands accent out of her by forcing her to “speak properly”. You can now only hear the faint shadow of her accent after she’s visited her hometown, but she’s sure to crush it whenever she picks up the phone for work. Twenty years later, the same rhetoric is still impacting young people as they start their adult lives away from home. By expecting all British students with aspirations for a strong, professional career to speak in one specific dialect, we’re eroding any work put into social mobility and levelling up by companies and governments across this island.

It’s proving hard to rectify a narrative that is woven so deeply into the fabric of the British social tapestry. The voices for change speak with a regional twang; it’s time we started to listen.

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